When I arrived on the scene, Anjali and Jack each had a hand on the same red hula hoop, silently arguing over its possession in a contest of leverage and might. Perhaps words had been exchanged before I took the part of referee by putting my own hand on the hoop, but by the time I got there it was all about brute strength.
I asked, "What's happening?"
Jack answered, "I want it."
Anjali replied, "I had it first."
Jack shot back, "No, I had it first."
Neither of them seemed particularly angry, but they both spoke with conviction. Usually in these tussles there's one child who betrays that he knows he didn't have it "first," but I got the sense that they may well have picked it up simultaneously. The fact that this was taking place on a short flight of concrete stairs may help explain why there was none of the usual violent tugging, and probably mitigated the more intense emotions one or both of them may have otherwise exhibited. They were both approaching 5-years-old, after all, with enough experience to understand the dangers of concrete, stairs, and the precariousness of their situation. The concentration it takes to both fight over a plastic hoop and avoid taking a raspberry-inflicting fall, at least in part, explains to me why these two normally verbal kids wore silent glares and tight-lips, but remained otherwise under control.
Even the slow motion tug-of-war stopped when I put my hand on the ring, although both maintained a firm grip.
I said, "I see an orange hoop just lying on the ground over there. And a blue one too."
Anjali, "Red's my favorite color."
Jack, "I like red, too. Red is more my favoritist color than hers."
It was actually kind of freaky how calm the kids were. They had been coming to school together for the past 3 years -- over half of their lives. I like to think that their history and friendship were present for both of them in that moment, tempering the kind of preschool conflict that so often turns hysterical, if not violent.
Me, "What should we do?"
Jack, "I don't know."
Anjali, "I don't know."
Luna, another friend of 3 years, was sitting on our "hoppy ball" monitoring the proceedings. I solicited her perspective as an unbiased observer, "Luna, what do you think they ought to do."
She answered without hesitation, bouncing slightly on the ball, "I think they should take turns. First one then the other then the other then the other."
Anjali and Jack, remarkably, continued to lock eyes. Normally by now, at least one of the parties would have resorted to pleading with the adult.
I waited for a reaction, but when it didn't come, I echoed, "Luna thinks you should take turns."
Anjali, "I get it first."
Jack, "That's not fair. I get it first."
Sarah, another friend of 3 years was standing beside me. "How do you think we can solve this problem, Sarah?"
"Maybe they can just play with it together. Maybe they can roll it to each other."
This time they responded to Sarah's suggestion directly, both indicating they they didn't like that idea either.
While Luna and Sarah continued to suggest modified versions of their solutions, Jack and Anjali stood rooted to the spot, their grips tight, their expressions firm, their eyes on one another, but with my hand on the hoop I felt no pulling one way or the other.
I suggested softly, "I could just put this red hoop away and you could both play with different colored hoops." Neither of them liked that.
The three of us were silent. We all knew where this had to go. If the adult wasn't going to force a solution, we all knew that one of them would have to relent. All I was sure of is that it couldn't be me. This is the core of why children go to school. Forget reading, writing and arithmetic, this is it, this is what school is about, boiled down to this moment. We are here to learn how to live with the other people, and sometimes that means setting aside our own agenda for that of another. There was nothing more to be said, and although there was a growing conversation swirling around us about what ought to happen, those two were alone together on those concrete stairs, holding that red hoop, knowing that one of them would need to make the decision to end it.
It seemed like a long time to me, so I know it seemed like a very long time to the kids. But finally, slowly, speaking almost in a mumble as if responding to a request, Jack said, "Oh, okay," and released his grip.
I said, "Jack is being a good friend and letting Anjali have the red hoop first." I wanted everyone around to hear me. "That was a hard thing to do, and he did it!"
Anjali, speaking in a mumble, replied, "Thank you."
I asked, "When you're finished with the hoop will you make sure to give it to Jack?"
She answered that she would.